The new season of Top Gear premieres this Sunday on BBC America — and according to host Freddie Flintoff, some of the changes the show had to make because of the coronavirus pandemic actually made it BETTER.
Freddie and his co-hosts Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness take part in a string of spectacular stunts in the upcoming episodes, including tackling a terrifying carnival-inspired Wall of Death while driving insurance write-offs.
But while the show is famous for these kinds of death-defying feats (Bungee jumping off a dam while strapped into a car, anyone?), according to Freddie, it was another well-known element of the world-famous series that ended up being improved because of coronavirus.
Normally, segments of the show are broken up with the hosts discussing their antics and interviewing famous guests in a studio filled with car fanatics, as has been the way ever since the days of former presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May.
Because of COVID-19, however, that wasn’t feasible this year. Instead, the Top Gear crew dreamt up a new solution, filming these segments on a giant outdoor stage at an airfield.
A 500-strong socially-distanced crowd looks on while parked up in an incredible assortment of 160 cars, including many classics like they were at a drive-in theater.
The results were spectacular:
“It was brilliant,” says Freddie of the new format. “It was a change which was brought about by COVID and social distancing, with the team still wanting a crowd. But I think, through circumstance, it’s actually been improved.
“We had a big stage, with people coming in their cars and standing out in front. So we still got the audience, but everybody’s at a distance. I think people are wondering why have we not done that before, because it works and it looks amazing, we enjoyed doing it, and the audience seemed to enjoy watching it.
“All the crews were so proud of what we’d done. So sometimes, when you’re forced to make a change, it’s not always a bad thing. And I think the drive-in works so well, and hopefully it’s something we’ll look at doing again, even after COVID.”
Aside from that, not much had to change for the upcoming season.
The trio of presenters went on a road trip to Cyprus’ Mediterranean island before filming was forced to come to a halt in March amid the first wave of the pandemic.
Then, when filming resumed in mid-June, they were able to shoot pretty much as normal because — thankfully — you only need one person in a car at a time when you’re filming a car show, so Freddie, Chris, and Paddy were easily able to remain socially distant.
‘People won’t really notice the difference’
“We went to Cyprus before COVID, and we did another film where we visited Paddy’s hometown of Bolton before COVID, so there’s normal distancing in the car together for those,” says Freddie. “And then we had the break and came back. We distanced, obviously, while doing the setting up bits.
“But then you’re in your car, so it’s probably quite an easy show to be distanced with. [The pandemic] also opened up opportunities, like there’s a theme park [in the UK], called Alton Towers, which was closed down.
“So we took the cars and raced around the theme park, which was quite an amazing thing to do. We also did the Wall of Death. So I think it is different but not that noticeable. I don’t think people are going to sit, look at it and think, “Oh, did they film this during COVID?” because the differences are quite subtle or, in some ways improved. Especially on the drive-in.”
In previous interviews with Monsters & Critics, Freddie’s co-hosts Chris and Paddy both joked about how Freddie was the “only one stupid enough” to volunteer to bungee jump in a car off a dam in the previous season — one of the most terrifying stunts ever pulled by the Top Gear team.
But when he hears that Paddy jokingly described him as “not one of the brightest chaps,” Freddie is aghast. “In comparison to Paddy, I’m a genius,” he laughs.
“Chris is quite a bright man, and there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. I’m not quite sure sometimes which side of that line I’m on, so I’ll take that from Chris. But I am not being called that from Paddy. No chance. That is the ultimate kick in the balls, that, isn’t it? This is coming from Paddy McGuinness!
“When it came to the dam, I saw it as an opportunity where you could do something which you’re never going to get the chance to do [again].
“Bungee off a dam in Switzerland in a Rover Metro, why wouldn’t you? But now what has happened is… in the new series we’re doing the Wall of Death and them two lads are trying to get involved on that side of it, and they’re starting to enjoy it.”
The terrifying Wall of Death
For the Wall of Death stunt, a giant, carnival-inspired motordome was set up indoors at London’s historic Alexandra Palace — and the presenters were tasked with defying gravity to drive up and around its vertical walls, first in a buggy and then in insurance write-offs, which for Freddie meant a 2.5-tonne Maserati Quattroporte which had previously been involved in a front-end crash.
“When we drove in and saw the size of this Wall of Death… I’ve seen motorbikes in them before and thought that was daft, but the scale of this thing was ridiculous,” says Freddie.
“The hardest thing was telling yourself that a car can get up there and drive around. We did it in buggies to begin with, which was one thing, and there were a few nerves knocking about then. But then we had to do it in the cars we had, which were Cat D cars, so they’d been in accidents. Not the best of cars!
“I had a Maserati Quattroporte, which is 2.5 tonnes. So I stripped it, took everything out of it, took the doors off, but we were still just under two tons. Paddy had a Porsche Cayman, and Chris had a Ford Focus RS.
“So it was one thing getting the buggies on, but then trying to get our cars around there and telling yourself ‘this is possible.’ When I did the bungee, well, you just fall, don’t you, you just sit there and fall, but there’s an element of skill in this I think.
“I’ve never experienced G-force like it, because you go around and you’ve got to go… you go fast. We had to get over 50 miles an hour. And you feel the Gs coming on to you. But my problem wasn’t so much blacking out or feeling myself going, it was as the G-force was coming down on me, it was going into my right foot. And I kept just going faster and faster, and I started greying out a little bit. It was an experience, but it was fun. It’s that fine line again isn’t it? Bravery or stupidity, I don’t know which one it was.”
The season also sees the trio taking €30 ($36) holiday hire cars skiing on snow in Cyprus and each of them trying to spend 24 hours inside a vehicle without getting out.
Being 6ft 4in tall, spending a day inside a car wasn’t the most enjoyable of Freddie’s tasks, who ended up spending most of it in his underwear after a toilet disaster.
Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future
On the other hand, his favorite moment of the series was attempting to drive at 200mph along an airstrip in a nearly 30-year-old Jaguar XJ220 — one of his dream cars as a kid.
“I remember that car coming out when I was about 13,” says Freddie. “It was just so unachievable to be anywhere near it, nevermind having the chance to drive it on a runway at 200 miles an hour. It was like nothing I’ve driven in my life before.
“I’ve driven new cars fast, and they almost do it for you. But this thing, it was like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. You start going fast and everything starts shaking and it makes noises you’ve never heard before. And you’re hanging on to it. So that for me was a real treat.”
‘Always be thankful for the people before you’
Freddie, Chris, and Paddy share great on-screen chemistry, something which Freddie says came naturally — just like it did for previous presenters Clarkson, Hammond, and May. But does he ever compare himself to the show’s previous presenters?
“No, I don’t,” he says. “I used to watch Top Gear. I watched it with Clarkson, Hammond, and May. And when Chris Evans took over and Matt LeBlanc, who’s good mates with Chris [Harris] and seems like a great bloke. But whatever you do… I was a sportsman before this, where you always come in, and you take someone’s position.
“There’s always been someone before everything you do. And one thing, you’re thankful for the people before you, because without them, you wouldn’t be doing the job. You do watch it, and then you see… You watch some of the things that they’re really good at, and you try and learn from them, and just be the best you can.
“But, ultimately, I’m doing this job as me. I’m not trying to be anything I’m not. I’m throwing myself into it, but really enjoying it. And hopefully, the viewers and the public do as well because, ultimately, they decide who works and who doesn’t.
“If nobody’s watching it, there’ll be somebody else. So, yeah, I’m thankful for everyone who went before us, but I don’t compare myself. And I don’t think in anything I’ve done I compare myself to other people. I’m me, like it or lump it really.”
The new season of Top Gear premieres this Sunday, October 18, at 8 pm ET/PT on BBC America.